Gov. DeSantis signs bills aimed at overhauling property insurance, providing hurricane relief

Anticipating the need for more legislation about the state’s troubled property-insurance system, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday signed bills intended to stabilize the insurance industry and provide $751.5 million for people and communities recovering from hurricanes.

DeSantis signed the bills two days after lawmakers finished a special session that focused heavily on property-insurance issues.

During an appearance at The Yucatan Beach Stand in Fort Myers Beach, DeSantis said the insurance bill (SB 2-A) is designed to provide "predictability" for private insurers to do business in Florida. Insurers during the past two years have dropped hundreds of thousands of policies and received approval for large rate increases — and in some cases gone insolvent — because of financial losses.

The retreat from the market by private insurers has led to a flood in policies at the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. State leaders have long warned that policyholders throughout Florida could get stuck with the tab through what are known as "assessments" if Citizens can’t pay all of its claims after a major hurricane or hurricanes.

"You’ve got to have a solvent private market," DeSantis said. "You can't dump everybody on Citizens Property Insurance. It's not solvent. If you have a major event, they can assess everybody."

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Still, DeSantis warned more work may be needed during the 2023 regular legislative session, which will start March 7.

"We understand it's a difficult issue," DeSantis said. "We want to continue working until we get it in as great a shape as possible."

The 105-page bill includes steps to try to curb lawsuits against insurers, move policies out of Citizens and help provide critical reinsurance to insurers.

Among other things, it eliminates "one-way attorney fees," which have required insurers to pay the attorney fees of policyholders who successfully file lawsuits. It also bans a practice known as assignment of benefits, which involves policyholders signing over claims to contractors who then pursue payment from insurers.

In addition, it prevents Citizens policyholders from renewing coverage if they receive policy offers from private insurers that are within 20% of the cost of the Citizens premiums, and it sets aside $1 billion in tax dollars to help provide reinsurance, which is backup coverage for insurers.

RELATED: Altmaier resigns as Florida Insurance Commissioner after passage of overhaul legislation

The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the bill largely along party lines, with opponents arguing, in part, that it does not include rate reductions for policyholders. Also, they said it would make it harder for policyholders to win legal disputes with insurers over claims.

House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, issued a statement Friday describing the bill as a "trickle-down" plan.

"Republicans in the Legislature prioritized giving insurance companies what they wanted instead of giving hard-working Floridians relief from paying the highest property insurance premiums in the country," Driskell said.

After the session ended, Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier submitted his resignation to DeSantis after six years as the state’s top insurance regulator. Asked during the event Friday about Altmaier’s departure, DeSantis said the opening is a "great opportunity" for "talented people."

The other bill (SB 4-A) focuses on spending to help people and communities hammered in recent months by Hurricane Ian and Hurricane Nicole.

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The bill includes allocating $350 million to the Florida Division of Emergency Management to match Federal Emergency Management Agency public-assistance grants; $150 million to the Florida Housing Finance Corp. to assist property owners and renters with housing repairs; and $100 million to beach-erosion projects.

The measure also allows homeowners whose properties were uninhabitable for at least 30 days after Ian or Nicole to get refunds and breaks on their property taxes.

State economists last week estimated that the property-tax refunds could top $18.5 million statewide, with the biggest impact in Lee County, where Ian made initial landfall.

DeSantis on Thursday signed a third bill passed during the session. That bill (SB 6-A) provides $500 million to give credits to frequent users of toll roads.